Performance as Documentary: An Interview with Robert Greene (Web Exclusive)
by Erik Luers
Both an advocate for provocative documentary filmmaking and a key proponent of its resurgence, Robert Greene has become a strong presence in the doc film world. After finding critical success with his previous two features, Kati with an I and Fake It So Real, Greene now finds himself at the center of much attention for his latest work, Actress.
A character study with riveting implications of documentary performance, Actress follows Brandy Burre (best known for starring on HBO’s hit television series, The Wire), now a loving mother looking to get back into the industry. What follows is a moving portrait of a tumultuous time in this woman’s life, as well as a remarkably photographed, expertly designed cinematic story. The film consistently asks its audience questions, rewarding the attentive viewer, and challenging and expanding our views of the documentary format. It also adeptly identifies a prominent sense of place; the wintry city of Beacon, New York becomes a place of both welcomed solitude and unrest.
The film screened on April 26 as the Closing Night selection of Art of the Real, a new series held by the Film Society of Lincoln Center that seeks to redefine filmgoers’ expectations of documentary filmmaking.—Erik Luers
Cineaste: What was your relationship with Brandy Burre before you started filming?
Robert Greene: We're close friends. We’re neighbors. I actually lived two houses over from her for a while and then we were traveling one day and she was looking at the house we currently live in—which was between us—and she's like, “You guys should move here! It's bigger and better!” She found us our house (that we currently live in), which moved us just one house closer. We're like fifteen feet away from each other. You can see my house and my car in pretty much every exterior shot in the movie. It was like filming at my extended house. My kids and her kids are the same age and they're best friends. Every summer they play with each other. We were intensely close friends beforehand in part because we take care of each other’s kids.
Because of my two previous films—one was about my half-sister (Kati with an I) and the next one featured my cousin (Fake It So Real)—I was hesitant to start with someone so close. But I was working on other things and I wanted to make a film, and I had some ideas brewing in my head. Brandy's circumstance was such that I didn't really know what was going to happen. That was obviously a surprise, but I knew she was in her mid-to-late thirties and she was starting to really think about her life in a way that really appealed to me, appealed to the women that I know in my life and also appealed to my own life, being basically the same age as Brandy, and having kids the same age and trying to balance work and life. I also had these ideas about performance and documentary and she's such a theatrical human being anyway that I thought we could try something.
We started filming and didn't really know, at first, what we were doing. Eventually, the thing just grabbed a hold of both of us and became what it is. But, yeah, we were very close before and we're even closer now.
Cineaste: You capture Brandy's environment remarkably well, often taking us inside her home and beyond, as we see the snow-covered world outside. Much of the film takes place throughout the winter. There's a great moment when Brandy talks about keeping the holidays intact as you show her ex-lover, Tim, ripping off the Christmas lights outside the home one by one. Was a wintry setting crucial to the film? How long did it take to shoot?
Greene: We actually started shooting the previous May. I think we filmed for more than a year, but it was a year-long process, a “year in the life.” The film feels like it starts in the previous winter and then goes through spring quickly and you get to those following winter moments. Here in Beacon, I feel like this was the worst year yet. The entire town, like a lot of winter towns, just kind of holed up in the winter. We're about seven to ten degrees colder sometimes than what it is in the city. The snow stays on the ground. A couple of years ago, we had snow on the ground for six weeks and I think we got close to that this year. Either way, it was colder for longer than I can remember. If the story and the things transpiring that created the story, which were all of the things she went through, had taken place in the spring, it'd be a different kind of movie. It really does match up with how people were feeling, and I think there's a sense of hibernation and getting ready to break out of your shell when the springtime comes that a lot of people in this town and plenty of other towns in the Northeast feel.
The holiday stuff was painful to go through. That Christmas party the previous year [shown in the film] was a much different affair. Same party, same people, but with Tim and Brandy in the middle of what they were going through, that was very painful to experience for everybody involved. It was an important part of telling that aspect of the story. I think holidays speak to what you gain and lose when you have a family. The more painful moment to me was the scene that takes place on Thanksgiving morning. That was very painful for me to experience personally. We included that stuff in the movie mostly because that's when everything was happening. Beyond that, I think it really did speak to the feeling in the town, which is you go into hibernation and then you thaw and get ready for hibernation again, and then you thaw again. The place has a particular cycle, and I think that's what Brandy went through. In the springtime her life had changed. By the time the ice was melting, it began to play like a metaphor in the film. But it wasn't just a metaphor. When springtime came, things were changing, and that's just how it was.
Cineaste: At one point Brandy even says, “Let me just be a mom for awhile and go into hibernation.”
Greene: Yeah, she really thinks of her psyche and her self as going in and out of this maximum theatricality of herself. Maybe that's over-analyzing a little bit. Although she's the type of person who can stay up all night and party and put everyone else to shame, she doesn't just want to be that. She wants to hole up sometimes and be alone with her kids. Her entire life is a tension between those two ideas of self and I think the movie makes that clear and captures that.
Cineaste: Is the film, then, a portrait of a woman trapped in this lifestyle? Perhaps trapped isn't the right word.
Greene: I think what happened with Brandy is what happens with a lot of people. You make these decisions for comfort and stability, and then eventually those same things that are comforting and stable end up putting walls around you that you didn't expect. I don't know that Brandy would ever categorize herself as being trapped, but I felt like I saw her being trapped. When she's cleaning the room and she puts the labels on the toys, that was something that my wife, who's also friends with Brandy, was very adamant that we try to capture. My wife said that showed to her Brandy's creative outlet because she can't be creative in the ways that she used to be or that she maybe wants to be in the future. Brandy felt she was doing everything she could and she was happy to have a house that she could take care of. I think it comes in cycles for Brandy and for many women. You want to take care of your home, making it as good as possible for your kids and for yourself, and then eventually you feel trapped and you want to break out of that. You want to be someone else and you want the world to look at you as something else. Eventually, you come back again. The cycles are very much a part of her life.
I think what the film makes clear, or at least what the goal was to make clear, is that both of those things are performances. Being the free woman who is sexy and out there is a performance in a way, and being the stay-at-home mom and wife is a performance in itself. All of those performances are living and force you to make decisions about who you really are. Women have to put those performances ahead of things sometimes. Men aren't perceived in the same way. I'm pretty adamant that a lot of what's in the movie speaks to my experience directly, speaking as a person who has kids and who also wants to have other things in life. The big difference is, as a man, I can go to a bar at two in the morning and people will be like “He's just a fun guy! That's cool that he can balance all these things.” But if you see a person that you know who has two young kids and is a mom, there's no way those perceptions are the same. It's like “Oh, there must be a problem.” That's usually what women face. The goal of the movie is to make these social performances clear by embracing all the aspects of the performance and letting them live there and letting the audience detect the layers if they can. The layering was really what we were going for because I think that shows how these performances clash against each other.
Cineaste: To what extent does Actress then serve as a new starring vehicle for Brandy? Several scenes in the film seem to reference this idea. Did you or even Brandy herself see this film as a way back into the industry?
Greene: The nature of performances is one of the primary subjects of the movie. I think that was a given for me from the beginning and eventually Brandy realized that. So, what you see is Brandy dealing with the levels of authenticity, of her own experiences, throughout the movie. She's a collaborator on the film in so many ways, and that grew and grew and grew as we were going. It wasn’t the case at the beginning, but she became a collaborator once it became clear this this experience she was going through, this film, was a way to create art out of this pain. In the process, I think yes, it became her coming-out role. And her coming-out role is just being able to bravely embrace who she is.
She doesn't need a comeback. It's sort of demeaning to discuss her career as if there was a drop-off and then she had to come back. In some ways, though, I don't mind this being her comeback. I think she's giving an incredible, amazing performance, which is how I would like a lot of documentary subjects to be thought of, as giving these performances. She's doing the best version of it as an actor. The other side of it is that, although it's my perspective and although the film is limited in that it's a film—not everything that happened is in the film; there's obviously editing—and it's very much my idea of what happened in some ways, it's all still true. Even things that are stagey or emphasize performance more or less, it's still pretty much a one-hundred-percent-true documentary about what actually was happening. There's a real tension between it being a collaborative art process, which is almost like performance art of yourself, and, as we talk about the movie, it's kind of a mix between melodrama and cinéma vérité. This involves ideas about playing the role of yourself and the movie of your life and all these other things. The way she describes some of the painful things she's going through, she goes through these descriptions, in the best sense, as a performer.
She chooses the word “gutted,” for instance, when describing how she was gutted after having Stella (her child) and how she felt when that climatic story about the baby changer comes into the play. The use of the word “gutted” is such a beautiful theatrical word and really points to her embracing performance. I really do think there's a tension between it being her comeback role and it being one-hundred-percent true. I think that the tension is what hopefully people can respond to. You have these formal ideas at play and then you have this really bracing, real thing that's happened to a human being that people can relate to. That's how I want the film to work, on those two levels.
Cineaste: Could you talk a little bit about the sound design in your film? One sequence features Brandy in a very vulnerable state, speaking directly to the camera, before her pellet stove goes off and dares to drown her out. You keep filming and allow the awkwardness of the moment to breathe and to settle. Could you speak about this very striking moment and your use of sound in general?
Greene: The sound is captured sound. For me, the pellet-stove interruption was extraordinary. By that point in the movie, you're very aware of her performance. And then she starts to tell you this story, which she seems pretty distant from, almost as if she's embarrassed to tell it, but she clearly wants to tell it to the audience, the camera, and whoever is holding the camera. She's very cool about it and then the stove interrupts and her entire performance changes. You're reminded that there's nothing about this that's clean and easy. You're reminded that it's reality and it's happening. If we were controlling the performance, we never would have had someone push a button to make the pellet stove come on during a climatic moment. And after the loud pellet stove moment, which is like a Todd Haynes's Safe interruption into the home and into the narrative—as if the home is a like a ghost surrounding the characters—her performance changes entirely. You start to become aware of how these things—the reality, her performance and her environment—are all swirling around each other. That was fun to include because although it may take some people out of it, hopefully they get back into it in a real big way.
Since the sound is really captured sound that we used, we hardly ever added anything. There are some occasional wind sounds that we cleaned up with stock wind sounds and stuff like that. It's important for the sound to be as raw and bracing as the images are. Or in the case of the way we used music, it's as lush and melodramatic as the images are. I really wanted to have this play between lush, very dramatic and theatrical sound with really raw sound. That way you'd feel like you were going through these different states of consciousness throughout the movie.
Cineaste: When you say “lush,” I think that applies visually as well. There's a very intense feeling of visual warmth and lushness throughout, especially in a sequence featuring Brandy in a red dress in her kitchen. The color red is everywhere in that sequence. Was that a desired visual choice?
Greene: That red dress sequence and the sequence of her going around the house with the big pop song playing were the two sequences that cinematographer Sean Price Williams and I shot together. A few years ago, for my birthday, he said, “I'll give you one free day of shooting.” He shot Kati with an I and co-shot Fake It So Real. While we've always worked together, I didn't want him to do it for free, so he cashed in his birthday chip and came for this one day. The way the project was going, I needed to be shooting most of it. I shot ninety-nine percent of the movie, but he helped with that red dress sequence. I think the red dress was a separate idea, but then we realized all the red objects around her. We removed a couple of colors. It's funny how it reads like a Kubrick-inspired moment, a filmmaker controlling one's mise en scène. What it truly is is a documentary moment. Brandy wanted to wear the red dress for the scene and we thought that would be perfect for what we were going for with this idea of “your kitchen is your stage” quality of the image. All the red objects just happened to be around her. We didn't dress the set as much as it may seem.
The first slow-motion thing you see after the opening, when Brandy's putting on makeup and Tim comes in, feels very staged. It looks like it's on a tripod and that we had to have done three takes. The crazy thing is…that's one of the most Direct Cinema moments of the whole movie. I just started recording because I liked the way it looked with Brandy putting her makeup on and Tim just walked in. The way it reads in the film is as this dramatic, stagey moment that's trying to say something huge about their relationship. The fact is we just happened to be recording in slow-motion and this amazing thing happened. On a microlevel, there are all of these tensions between fiction and nonfiction that you feel while you're watching. You can't ever be totally sure. I think that's one of the things that works for the movie.
In terms of the image quality, we were amazed at how great her kitchen looked, including the light in the windows. They have a beautiful house and it looked even better through digital video, which softened everything and made it really lovely and warm. Warmth is the thing that we feel toward each other, so I think that was an important choice. That being said, I think there are some harsh images in the film and Brandy would certainly claim that to be the case in the scenes where she's not wearing makeup. She wishes she didn’t have to see herself that way, since she's a performer who's used to putting makeup on! Nonetheless, I do think there was something about the warmth of the house and the warmth that we have for each other that came through in the images.
Cineaste: Your use of lighting is also very inspired, such as when Brandy is driving on the road at night and the passing automobiles' headlights illuminate her face.
Greene: That's when I knew we had a movie. We drove in silence for a few minutes as she listened to that song, which really reminded her of what she was going through. That's when I knew we had something here. She's beautiful in a way that compels you to watch. It's a very specific kind of beauty, like what Gena Rowlands had. Brandy could be more abrasive than most lovely women in movies that are meant to look as delicate as children, but she has such a beautiful woman's face. I could stare at it all the time. It's really a compelling image to me.
Cineaste: What do you see as an ideal distribution model for independent documentary filmmakers? Is the festival circuit the way to go or is online distribution, and all that that implies, a more desired path to take? Is it becoming easier or more difficult to get your films seen?
Greene: Personally, I want my movies to play in movie theaters. While festivals can fulfill a part of that, there’s nothing like getting a week-long run for your movie. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get that. Kati with an I was a New York Times Critics’ Pick and I was really happy that it got a run uptown in Harlem at the Maysles Cinema, which is a great space but isn’t necessarily the most well attended for a week-long screening. ReRun Theater, which screened Fake It So Real, was its own sort of small, magical hole in the wall. But, yes, my goal for Actress is to have it play more traditional theaters. One of the things I’ve been talking about with my critical writing and my own work is that these movies are seen differently in a theatrical space. It’s very important to me. I edit films to be seen theatrically, like fiction material I’ve worked on like Listen Up Phillip or other documentaries. Even if it’s a “talking head documentary” about a social movement or something along those lines, I’ve always thought of editing the timing and the sense of the piece for the theatrical experience.
Movie theaters barely make any money. A movie can make a couple of thousand dollars, or could get lucky and make ten or fifteen thousand dollars, but theatrical releases don’t really sustain the work. For me, it’s the best sort of advertisement for anything else you’d want to do. Obviously there’s Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon and all these other outlets. Fake It So Real is now on Fandor, and I think people have actually seen it there, which is fine. I also make movies that can be seen on a small screen, as I shoot on digital video. Hopefully they can be seen small and can live like that. I really do think you shoot for that beautiful experience of showing your movie in a crowd or room full of people, or even just one person who happens to go to a matinee screening.
My other movies have been successful enough that I think it’s going to be possible for Actress to get out there in a bigger way. That’s the goal. To me, no matter what we do, we all strive for that experience. Whether people are making narrative cinema or experimental cinematic movie experiences, they all want the biggest screen possible and the quietest room and the most attention to every nuance and detail. Obviously, most people will not see the movie that way, but I can still hope for it, and I’d like to think we will be able to pull it off this time.
Erik Luers is a film programmer and critic whose work has appeared in Indiewire, Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door, Fangoria, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s FilmLinc Daily.
For more information on the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real series, click here.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.